Former front man tells David Evans of his latest ventures in a back seat

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 March, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 March, 2000, 12:00am

Hong Kong stalwart Simon Murray rarely pauses for breath during the interview, reinforcing the image of a hyperactive salesman who lives for the done deal. Only once did he seem lost for words, when he was asked if he felt comfortable being described as one of Hong Kong's business elite.

There was a long silence before Mr Murray declared: 'I've no response to that.' Mr Murray's modesty is unwarranted, because his reputation as a businessman and adventurous Briton precedes him.

His US$275 million technology-focused GEMS Oriental & General Fund will owe as much of its success to Mr Murray's impressive list of high-profile investors - many of whom are family friends - as it will to his enthusiasm for the job and entrepreneurial leadership.

Investors such as Li Ka-shing sit alongside blue-chips Deutsche Bank, GE Capital, Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Swiss luxury goods company Richemont, controlled by South African Johann Rupert.

Mr Murray claims he has already reached, and passed his peak.

But the former French Foreign Legionnaire, who this week celebrates his 60th birthday, still finds time to run up the Old Peak Road at 7am.

'I'm on my way down. I'm quietly parachuting down and enjoying it as I go,' he says.

Mr Murray may be enjoying winding down, but he is far from quiet.

He says he is not in a hurry but is told he has lots of energy and energy is good petrol.

Halfway through a sentence he jumps up and heads out the door telling me he has something for me.

He returns, but not before calling across the office for more coffee, and hands me a prospectus for General Enterprise Management Services (GEMS), the company which manages the fund, and points to a picture of himself and his advisers enjoying a working break in Thailand.

'I wouldn't say we live well, but we enjoy ourselves . . . we have our meetings in sensible places,' he says, laughing at the irony in his statement.

GEMS is Mr Murray's phoenix formed from the ashes of the Asian financial crisis.

The fund's brief is to invest in private Asian businesses and, unlike many other funds, it is not seeking to buy controlling stakes.

Mr Murray says many funds insisted on control because they were afraid of the company collapsing.

He says the downside tended to worry them more than the upside.

If it goes wrong and they control it, they can fire the staff, sell the assets and get their money back.

'We invest in people,' says Mr Murray.

He says many funds would only gain control of a good entrepreneurial company if it was sick. Then there was nothing to stop the previous management from starting a new business in competition.

'We don't buy people out, we put money in. Nobody goes out when we come in.' However, he says the fact that GEMS did not own a company did not mean it could not add value to it.

According to Mr Murray, GEMS had set itself certain limits to force it into diversification, as a safety net.

As a rule, the company would only invest up to 30 per cent of the fund in one country, 30 per cent in one industry, and 15 per cent of the fund in one deal.

'We don't just chuck money at these deals,' he says, distancing GEMS from companies such as Japan's Softbank. 'They'll throw money at it on the basis that, if you have 500 deals, 20 of them are bound to come right.

'That's gambling. The concept of having lots of hooks in the water as opposed to one hook means you've got a better chance of catching the big fish,' he says.

'But only if you're fishing in the right water.' Mr Murray believes there are three forces driving the Internet revolution; mobile communications, media content, and e-commerce.

Reaching for his Palm Pilot, with its bigger screen than a mobile phone, he says this was where his money would be.

'Data will be more important than voice, and I can get a lot of data on this,' he says.

'We are focusing on that - the enhancement of mobile communications.' Mr Murray says there would soon be close to 50 million Web sites, and e-commerce providers needed something to pull consumers to that Web site in the form of entertainment content.

'What the boys call cool. It's got to be a Web site that pulls me, and that is a cost that a lot of people haven't recognised yet,' he says.

Mr Murray says it had taken the United States four years to creep into the Internet business and recognise the value of what was there. It had taken Hong Kong just six months, he says, 'and we're hardly known as an hi-tech environment'.

Considering what Asia had come through in the past two years, Hong Kong's position as a financial centre had emerged relatively unscathed, according to Mr Murray.

'The foundations of that financial centre have been proven to some extent and the credibility is still there.' he says.

'Overnight we have become an Internet hub and it is pretty amazing, but at the same time there is nothing that is preventing anyone from getting into this business.' Describing the Internet as a great leveller, Mr Murray said information was the key to successful businesses in the old days.

However, today, because everybody has access to the information, everyone is equal.

'Today is the day of the entrepreneur, it is the day of building businesses,' he says.

Mr Murray arrived in Hong Kong in 1966 after landing himself a position with Jardine Matheson.

He considers the job a lucky break, as at the time he had no degree and the British company almost exclusively recruited graduates from Oxford or Cambridge.

'They must have been going through a lean patch,' he says.

Mr Murray's arrival coincided with the Star Ferry riots and it took him three hours to get to his hotel.

'Every street my taxi went down there were 500 people coming the other way smashing parking meters.' I asked if the experience put him off: 'No, I liked that,' is his response.

Shortly after his arrival Jardines posted him to Thailand and his 1970 return to Hong Kong coincided with the beginning of a stock market boom.

The Hang Seng was at 1,770, and Mr Murray lived on a salary of $28,000 a year, but had $600,000 worth of investments in the market.

In 1972, Jardines made a private placement of their stock to the Prudential insurance company in Britain - a move viewed then by some as Jardines leaving town, he remembers.

The market collapsed and three months later the index was at 152.

'There was blood everywhere. The horizon, black with people running for cover.' He uses the scenario as a description, and a warning about Hong Kong's dynamic but very volatile nature.

'What has happened over the past six months is simply incredible,' he says.

'Hong Kong is the most volatile place in the world.' On the last page of his best-selling book Legionnaire, Mr Murray reminisces about the simplicity of the past: 'The corridors of life today seem narrow by comparison and the materialistic ends we seek require a constant progression.' However, Mr Murray's 'narrow corridors' have led him to own homes in Britain, southern France, Hong Kong and Thailand.

A far cry from the boy who started life on a tramp steamer going from Rotterdam to South America in 1958.

'I was on holiday in Rotterdam and I saw all these guys lining up to get jobs on these ships, so I joined the queue. When I got to the front the guy said 'Where's your seaman's book?' and I said I don't have a seaman's book, so I was told to get lost.' But providence was shining, and the following day Mr Murray found himself on a boat headed for Buenos Aires, working as a galley boy scrubbing the decks and peeling potatoes for nine months.

'I eventually ended up in Bremen and it was time to get off the bloody thing as I'd peeled about 24,000 potatoes,' he says.

But the ship's captain had other ideas, saying the teenage Simon Murray had signed up for a round trip - next stop Bombay.

'So I developed a huge appendicitis overnight and the doctor got me off the following day,' he says.

Having found his sea legs, Mr Murray spent a year in an iron foundry in northern England before heading off to the Foreign Legion in search of sunshine and adventure.

But that was 40 years ago, and the conversation eventually turns to Mr Murray's involvement on the fringes of Hong Kong politics just before the handover.

'What I wanted was a maintenance of the status quo. Hong Kong was fine as it was,' he says referring to his support for the policies of Hong Kong's former Governor Chris Patten.

He said that, despite the raging debate about rule of law, Beijing had demonstrated it did not wish to interfere in the running of Hong Kong.

'Everybody watches Hong Kong and asks if everything is all right, and the answer is yes,' he says.

'The biggest thing we have to fear is not from China trying to interfere but people in Hong Kong gaining points by bringing messages to the emperor.' Simon Murray is chairman of General Enterprise Management Services (GEMS), which he set up in 1998.

The former French Foreign Legionnaire came to Hong Kong in 1966 and spent 14 years at Jardine Matheson.

He then set up Devanham Investments, acting for clients interested in infrastructure deals. He joined Hutchison Whampoa in 1984, rising to managing director before resigning in 1994 to head Deutsche Bank in Asia.

Overnight [Hong Kong has] become an Internet hub and it is pretty amazing, but at the same time there is nothing that is preventing anyone from getting into this business